HR Heroes: Tackling the Top 5 Manager Challenges

By Amii Barnard-Bahn, JD, ACC, Managing Principal, Barnard-Bahn Consulting & Coaching and HRWest 2019 speaker

According to some studies, a whopping 50% of managers are poor leaders. It turns out that managing is easy, but leading is hard. 

So how can you help increase leadership effectiveness at your company?  

In this article we’ll walk through the top 5 classic challenges managers face. Think about where your managers are strong and where they may be facing challenges.

First, consider the following questions:

In your organization, what would BETTER look like? 

What’s possible now?

As we walk through each of these challenges together, I share the problem statement and potential solutions to meet the challenge. After you finish reading, please share your goals and actions you’re taking in your company with our Next Concept HR Association community so we can all benefit and support each other.

Let’s go…

Challenge #5: Motivating Others.

John Adair – one of Britain’s foremost authorities on leadership in organizations, created the well-known 50:50 rule–which states that 50% of a person’s motivation comes from within, and 50% from the work environment.

So, how can managers best leverage the 50% of motivation that is created by the work environment?

  1. A supervisor’s relationship to their team is the single most important factor in employee retention. Managers need to stay on top of what their staff needs and wants.
  2. Treat people as individuals. Managers need to understand that people are motivated by different things.
    • For some, external factors are important, such as wealth, perks, status and position.
    • For others, motivation is more about intrinsic factors, such as feeling satisfied, enjoying a sense of challenge, feeling valued, or realizing their potential.

What motivates someone then may well fall somewhere between intrinsic and external factors. So, managers need to get out there and ask their employees how they like to be recognized! Customize the engagement approach and watch motivation climb.

Challenge #4: Stakeholder Management.

Savvy leaders know they need to navigate competing interests, scarce resources, ambiguity in authority, unclear rules and lack of information. How can managers build this skill?

Leaders need to cultivate 3 essential traits:

  1. Integrity. Keep commitments and admit mistakes. A lack of integrity will weaken relationships, bring credibility into question and undermine influence.
  2. Strategic Awareness. Understand the organizational structure, culture, and power dynamics.
    • How are decisions made?
    • Who must be included when shopping an idea or proposal?
    • Forge a network of alliances across the organization.
  3. Self-Mastery. Great leaders are aware of their triggers and display exceptional impulse control.
    • They don’t need to always say what is on their mind or jump right in with their solution.
    • Leaders need to determine the appropriate response before acting.
    • Leaders need to evaluate and incorporate other points of view.

In summary, “stakeholder relations” is about building and strengthening relationships, knowing themselves well, having a good sense about what’s going on around them and acting in an authentic way.

Challenge #3: Leading Team Achievement.

Being a manager is easy. Leadership is hard. Leaders are managers who successfully transition from an individual contributor role. Leaders make the shift from “ME” to “WE.”

In my coaching of mid-level managers, this is often where high performing individual contributors get stuck. They are promoted for their technical excellence and have to unlearn that mindset.

In their old role as an employee, their number one focus was on accomplishing their tasks. Now as a leader, their “number one” focus needs to be helping others accomplish their tasks and remember that:

  1. Leaders think before they speak.
  2. Leaders facilitate a dialogue of respectful challenge and inquiry.
  3. Leaders address conflict with courage while being prompt, direct, and kind

Leading team achievement is about leveraging individual gifts to harness the power of the group. A team is only so when a leader puts effort into the group as a community of its own.

Challenge #2: Being a Working Manager.

Managing others AND continuing to execute a workload can be a real challenge. What does it look like when manager does not do this well?

  1. A clear sign is overwhelm.  If a manager has poor time management skills, the manager and everyone on that team will not be productive. The work experience is likely to be stressful. Time not spent on the most important things!
  2. Poor communication skills.  If manager is poor at this, the team not know what is happening, lack clear expectations, and may be guessing (wrongly) at manager goals. If the manager is a poor listener, s/he will miss out on critical info from team and not be in touch with morale.
  3. Doing it all is not always a good thing.  Working managers often mistakenly feel that it’s their job to do it all. They may fail to delegate. Managing does not mean doing everything yourself! Hovering over your employees’ shoulders is a surefire way to stifle productivity and innovation in the department and diminish morale.So, what is the solution?
      • Block Time for Strategic Thinking.
      • Designate Drop-in Office Hours.
      • End of Day: 1 Big Thing for Tomorrow!
      • Ask Great Questions.
      • Regular Team Meetings + 1:1’s.
      • Use Agendas + Template Status Updates.
      • Audit Your Workflow.
      • Re-assign Tasks.
      • Give Stretch Assignments.

Challenge #1: Accepting the call to leadership.

How many of you believe that some managers have no clue what they signed up for?

When I was looking for the right word to describe the commitment required of a manager–the mental shift, the promise, the covenant, pledge, and commitment–other synonyms came up, like bondage, liability, and even serfdom.

There are challenges for managers around accepting the leadership covenant. It’s a shift in thinking. It’s like becoming a parent. Your life has changed! You are responsible for other people, and this requires a degree of selflessness and courage to make tough decisions, handle conflict, and be willing to learn and fail, publicly.

Managers may have been promoted for technical excellence, and not understand or have awareness of all the extra skills required to be a good leader. This can put a lot of people out of their comfort zone.

What do managers need to do to accept the call to leadership? They need to:

  1. CONNECT with people. Leaders need to cultivate positive relationships; employees want to feel heard, appreciated and understood.
  2. RESPECT. Managers need to earn the respect of the team. They may have difficulty asserting themselves over others, giving direction, and holding people accountable. The top 2 mistakes managers make in this area are (1) coming on too strong, like a ton of bricks, or (2) soft pedaling, which means being a people pleaser and not setting boundaries. Neither approach works!
  3. PROTECT Professional Boundaries. Healthy boundaries are the basis of a professional, productive work relationship. Managers who lack a professional demeanor, are overly personal, or share too much may unwittingly cultivate problems of respect, authority, conflicts of interest, and many times ER/ethics problems.
  4. Have NO REGRETS. Leaders need to proactively manage conflict and performance. The morale of the team is at risk if manager is too harsh or lets poor performance go unmanaged. They must accept facing tough people decisions. Some managers postpone indefinitely or seek a short-term compromise that hurts credibility and is not fair to the team. This can be especially hard for introverts, who are often highly skilled and analytical, observant, and know when a problem exists, but avoid and shy away from addressing it directly and promptly. Small problems can escalate.

So how do managers accept the call to leadership? How do they make the shift to being a leader?

As Kate Ebner once shared with me when I was an executive, leaders need to be:

  1. KIND. Show you care. Deliver your message – no matter how difficult – with compassion, warmth and sincerity. This is especially true for tough messages, such as layoffs, no bonus years, or other difficult circumstances. Honor the person receiving it – it makes a huge difference.
  2. CLEAR. Get really clear about your message. What are you really saying? What do you need? Know that not everyone will agree with you – and that’s ok – popularity is not the goal.
  3. FAIR. Given the circumstance, what is fair? Upholding a policy, or making an exception? Needs to be thoughtful and principled. Some call this integrity. Keep your word and tell the truth.
  4. FIRM. If you make a decision, do you stick with it? Wishy washy leaders are confusing. Leaders should try to stay firm and commit to the path they have chosen. They work out their doubts in private. Don’t let people “work on you” to change your mind. Being firm means staying flexible but standing strong.


We’ve gone through a lot. We’ve talked about 5 top leadership challenges of managers, which are perhaps best summed up with this quote: “Most leaders succeed or fail based on how well they work with others and how well they understand themselves.” (Dotlich & Cairo)

The problem is, that most managers don’t get the feedback they need to help them understand how well they work with others and how well they understand themselves.

The secret that all of you in HR know is that ALL companies are made up of flawed leaders. None of us are perfect. A lot of managers make the mistake of thinking they need to act perfect, cover up and hide their flaws. Just pretend they don’t exist. But that doesn’t work. It’s never worked, and technology as well as our evolving society has created a world of transparency. If managers don’t know their flaws, everyone else does!

So here is the great secret to success…

Managers need to understand and accept their flaws!

Think about that for a minute. The big secret to great leadership is that when a manager KNOWS where he or she can go wrong, what their triggers are and, what mistakes they may have made, they increase their awareness. And awareness is the first step in managing derailers and not letting them impact their performance with their team.

What a relief! Leaders don’t have to be perfect! Once managers know their flaws, they are can adjust their behaviors in ways that lead to increased success.

Every one of us can think of a mentor or someone who believed in us and inspired us to do better. You can be that inspiration and guide to managers. Find promising leaders. Look for windows of opportunity. Find managers with the courage to fail, be vulnerable, and learn – they will get better. You have the power to make better leaders!

Good luck developing managers into leaders! Please share your goals and actions with the community so we can all learn from and support each other. If you have additional suggestions please share them below in the comments section, I’d love to hear from you. Are you attending HR West 2019? Read below for more information on my Monday (3/11) morning session.*


Amii Barnard-Bahn, JD ( ) is an executive coach and strategic advisor who enables organizations to outperform and outbehave the competition. She works with clients including First Republic Bank, Adobe and The Gap. She is a leadership columnist at Compliance Week and a featured expert on the Compliance Podcast Network, covering CEO, board and governance best practices.

Amii is a Fellow at the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital – Harvard Medical School.  An experienced executive who has shaped company culture and strategic initiatives at Fortune 20 companies and nonprofits such as McKesson, Allianz and the California Dental Association, Amii has led multiple functions, including Compliance, Legal, Human Resources, IT, and Communications. 

Connect with Amii: on LinkedIn Twitter – @amiibb or at

*Continue this conversation with Amii by attending her HR West 2019 session, Transformation! 5 Success Strategies of HR Changemakers on Monday, March 11 (Day 1 of the conference), 10:20 a.m.-11:35 a.m.

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